For today’s Daily COVID-19 Report, PERF interviewed officials from police agencies serving airports in the Washington, DC area; New York/New Jersey; Los Angeles; and Chicago.

Key Takeaways

-- Airport police are trying to use education and encouragement, rather than enforcement, to obtain compliance with mask and social distancing orders. Many officers are carrying extra masks to give to travelers who aren’t wearing them.

-- Airport police agencies are taking precautions to protect their officers, especially to the risk of infection from fellow employees.

-- Most airport police do not have a significant role in enforcing quarantine orders.

-- While the number of travelers is down significantly, agencies are planning for the eventual return to normal operations.


Chief Emilio Gonzalez, Port Authority of NY/NJ Police Department:

We’ve Issued 7,200 Masks, and Only Issued Two Summonses and Made One Arrest

Protecting Officers: Unfortunately, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was at the epicenter of COVID when it first began in the United States. We had to do a lot of brainstorming to protect our officers, because we were infecting each other. At one point in early April, I had over 470 members who were quarantined. We’ve had 105 officers test positive, out of 2,500. Thankfully, no one has passed away, but we came very close with three sergeants who had issues with blood clots and lung issues. One sergeant may never return to work.

We had to come up with some creative ways to separate the cops, because we were taking each other out. We eliminated all roll calls, put strict social distancing policies in place, required masks, eliminated two-person cars, and at one point had officers receive their assignments over the phone and respond directly to their post without ever coming into the command.

Today we have 52 members of the force quarantined, not because they’re sick but because they traveled to hot spot states. If you come back from a hot spot location into New York or New Jersey, you have to quarantine for 14 days, under gubernatorial executive orders.

We have a strict policy that anyone who feels sick stays home. If officers get a test on their own, they have to notify our Office of Medical Services and quarantine until they get the result of the test. If the test is negative, they can come back to work immediately. If the test is positive, they have to stay out for a 14-day period or until they have no symptoms. We don’t test all our asymptomatic officers on a regular basis.

Quarantining Travelers: At our airports (LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International, and Newark Liberty International), the New York State Department of Health, New York City Department of Health, and New Jersey Department of Health are at the terminals and intercept people coming in on flights from hot spots. It doesn’t matter if you’re a New York City resident, New Jersey resident, or visiting the area from out of state, you have to quarantine for 14 days or until you test negative for the COVID-19 virus.

The Port Authority Police do not quarantine anyone, but our officers are in the area in the event that a person becomes disruptive or refuses to fill out the form required by the New York State Department of Health. At that point, if we have to intervene, it’s because the person is acting disorderly, not to require them to fill out the form. This has been in place for the last 3 to 4 weeks, and so far we have not had to intervene at all.

Masks: In the beginning, we wanted to stay away from enforcing mask orders and social distancing, but the Port Authority put out a policy that all facilities would require masks, including police. So our officers engage in more of an educational campaign. I don’t want summonses issued or arrests made, especially with the protests going on across the country. We educate the public, and we carry masks to give people we see without them. 99.99% of the time, we receive compliance. There’s always the rare person who becomes belligerent or nasty, and at that point we have issued a couple summonses based on gubernatorial directives. And we made one arrest because the individual became combative and tried to assault one of my cops.

To date, we have issued over 7,200 masks and talked to about 8,000 people, and we’ve only issued two summonses and made one arrest. So the program is going well.


Police Chief David Huchler, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority:

New York’s Experience Taught Us About the Risk of Infection from Each Other

Masks: Both of our airports (Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport) are in Virginia, so we’re subject to Virginia’s executive orders. In May, Governor Ralph Northam implemented a mask-wearing executive order, and the Department of Health was supposed to enforce mask policies, not the police. So we’ve taken a pretty hard stand that we’re not going to become the mask police.

We encourage and inform people, and we’ve issued extra masks to our officers, so they can provide them to people who don’t have a mask or are not aware of the local executive order.

The Airports Authority has implemented its own mask-wearing policy for employees, including police officers. The only exception is if officers need to remove their masks for a law enforcement purpose, such as needing to be heard more clearly, or if the mask interferes with the performance of their duties.

Quarantining Travelers: We have not had to deal with quarantines directly. We would support TSA or CBP in any quarantine measures.

Resuming Normal Operations: The Authority has been trying to predict when we’re going to come out of this. It’s probably going to be a longer recovery period than anybody anticipated. For us, we have the dual mission of law enforcement and security. So even though our passenger loads are way down, we still have to protect the infrastructure and support TSA and the airlines. We stay pretty busy with our security mission, regardless of the number of passengers coming through the airport.

Protecting Officers:  When COVID began, the Port Authority of NY/NJ started to put together a weekly call with airports across the country. Because New York and New Jersey were hit hard early on, we learned quite a bit from them.

We learned that we were more likely to get COVID from each other than from the traveling public. We implemented policies and standards to keep our officers safe. We went to virtual roll calls, emphasized social distancing, suspended training, and put cleaning protocols in place. I think we learned from what the Port Authority went through, and that helped prevent the spread of COVID in our department. As of today, we’ve had about a half-dozen people infected with COVID, and we haven’t lost anybody. When our people were infected, we were not able to trace anyone else in the police department who they had infected.


Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, Los Angeles World Airports:

We’re Preparing for the Possibility of Airport Concessions Reopening

Quarantining Travelers: We had to quarantine people here. Very early on, the protocol was that if someone came in ill, particularly on a flight from China, we worked with CDC and the county Department of Health. Our officers escorted an ambulance onto the airfield. The patient was held by Customs and Border Protection, then taken to a local hospital or quarantine location.

There were a couple times when we couldn’t get in touch with a person to respond, and people stayed at the airport under quarantine in CBP’s area for a couple days. That was quite the challenge, and that’s not really our job. We had to do a Red Cross-style housing situation, with bunks and providing food.

Now no one is being quarantined here at the airport. If people come in and are symptomatic or say they have COVID, they are contacted by the county Department of Health and CDC then transported.

Impact on the Workforce: I have 1,100 personnel here, and so far we’ve had fewer than 20 test positive. In the beginning we had four officers test positive, when one came to work ill and infected the other three. As far as we know, all other cases came from people’s families, personal lives, or other activities away from work. We had one Los Angeles World Airports janitor pass away from COVID-19, and we’re not sure where that exposure occurred.

Resuming Normal Operations: We have over 50,000 employees who work at the airport and have to be badged. We anticipate that once the concession stands and restaurants start opening up, they will do so pretty rapidly. So we put together a rapid response team that can ramp up the employee screening in a relatively short period of time, because they will have to go through background checks.


Commander William Mullane, Chicago Police Department:

We Maintain High Visibility to Deter Demonstrations at Our Airports

Masks: Our airports require face masks, both by the governor’s and mayor’s executive orders. All CPD members also are required to wear a face mask. Our stance on enforcing social distancing and masks is to educate and inform the public. We’ve had very little pushback. The Department of Aviation has an ambassador program that provides masks to those who need them.

The mayor has issued travel restrictions from multiple states. At this time, there is no enforcement of that; it’s more informational.

Protecting Officers: We’re taking precautions with our officers. We eliminated traditional roll calls, closed our break areas, and are doing deep cleaning of radios, vehicles, workstations, and other equipment. CPD has halted in-person training for a while.

Between O’Hare and Midway airports, we had fewer than 10 officers test positive for COVID, and no airport officers have died due to the virus. The Police Department has had several officers die from COVID.

Impact of Protests: When the Police Department goes to 12-hour days, as they have done during some of the protests, airport operations do as well. We maintain high visibility here to deter people from doing anything at the airport. On their days off, our officers have had to go work some protests. But for the most part, our officers have been able to stay at the airport. We haven’t had any incidents at the airport related to demonstrations. 


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.